Actors love to play delicious wickedness: the silky, amoral man; the cad who lovingly wounds as he woos; the master manipulator who does what he does for the malicious sport of it. Such is the character Campbell Scott plays with a cool and crafty nonchalance in Ronan Noone’s uneven and ultimately disappointing one-hander, “The Atheist.” Production, helmed with a light touch by Justin Waldman, is a special presentation at Beantown’s Huntington for a limited run.
Scott brings sexy star power to the role of Augustine Early, giving him class and charisma even as he slips into low-rent flourishes that sneak into the character’s body language reminding him — and us — from whence he came.
We encounter Early apparently recording the story of his rise from his lowly birth to celebrity journalist. He tells how he gave up God for the church of self where issues or morality, guilt or shame are shrugged off. He relates how at an early age he decided he needed radical actions to rise above his lot in life — like burning down the family home to get the best welfare housing. Then things really get creepy.
Early’s goal is notoriety and in the course of his serial scandals, betrayals and entrapments, he gets what he wants, mostly. But, without a larger context, understanding or comeuppance, none of which is explored in Noone’s script, Early’s smooth operator character eventually wears on the aud. As the list Early’s mortal sins accumulate, the journey becomes less and less fun — or believable.
Production also is marred by the fact Scott has not memorized the dialogue and must refer all too often to the script — here used as a prop. (He is reading from Augustine’s diary, see?) In the second act, Scott gives up the illusion of the diary prop and simply refers to the text as frequently as needed.
Ultimately, Noone’s script lets the actor and aud down, first by not having a credible enough understanding of how the world of journalism really works. In addition, simply explaining the whys of his character’s pathology with a few glib one-liners is not enough to keep him interesting for long.
Watching this trailer park Richard III still has its guilty pleasures. But ultimately it just adds up to an off-night on Fox TV, followed by the urge to take a shower.